The Psychology of Waiting Lines
post # 185 — September 8, 2006 — a Client Relations post
I just received an email suggesting I blog about waiting times in business. I suspect the author of the email knows about my article The Psychology of Waiting Lines, written more than 20 years ago. The topic here is not how to make the waiting time shorter, but how to make it more acceptable or palatable to the person waiting.
In spite of its age, I still get lots of calls from reporters who want to do stories on this, and the article is among my most frequently cited (for those who are counting). This is a great opportunity to get you all involved. I’ll give you the highlights of what I said back then, and you can tell me what I missed or should add.
I had eight propositions about how people experience waiting and what businesses could do to make a wait feel less onorous.
1) Occupied Time Feels Shorter Than Unoccupied Time.
In various restaurants, it is common practice to hand out menus for customers to peruse while waiting in line. Apart from shortening the perception of time, this practice has the added benefit of shortening the service time, since customers will be ready to order once they are seated, and will not tie up table space making up their minds.
2) People Want to Get Started.
One’s ‘anxiety’ level is much higher while waiting to be served than it is while being served, even though the latter wait may be longer. There is a fear of ‘being forgotten’. (How many times has the reader gone back to a maitre d’ to check that his or her name is still on the list?). Many restaurant owners instruct their service staff to pass by the table as soon as the customers are seated to say “I’ll be with you as soon as I can, after I’ve looked after that table over there”. In essence, the signal is being sent: ‘We have acknowledged your presence’.
3) Anxiety Makes Waits Seem Longer.
Nearly everyone has had the experience of choosing a line at the supermarket or airport, and stood there worrying that he had, indeed, chosen the wrong line. As one stands there trying to decide whether to move, the anxiety level increases and the wait becomes intolerable. This situation is covered by what is known as Erma Bombeck’s Law: “The other line always moves faster”
4) Uncertain Waits Are Longer than Known, Finite Waits
Clients who arrive early for an appointment will sit contentedly until the scheduled time, even if this is a significant amount of time in an absolute sense (say, thirty minutes). However, once the appointment time is passed, even a short wait of, say, ten minutes, grows increasingly annoying. The wait until the appointed time is finite; waiting beyond the point has no knowable limit.
5) Unexplained Waits Are Longer than Explained Waits
On a cold and snowy morning, when I telephone for a taxi, I begin with the expectation that my wait will be longer than on a clear, summer day. Accordingly, I wait with a great deal more patience because I understand the causes for the delay. Similarly, if a doctor’s receptionist informs me that an emergency has taken place, I can wait with greater equanimity that if I do not know what is going on. Airline pilots understand this principle well; on-board announcements are filled with references to tardy baggage handlers, fog over landing strips, safety checks, and air-traffic controllers’ clearance instructions. The explanation given may or may not exculpate the service provider, but is it better than no explanation at all.
6) Unfair Waits Are Longer than Equitable Waits
In many waiting situations, there is no visible order to the waiting line. In situations such as waiting for a subway train, the level of anxiety demonstrated is high, and the group waiting is less a queue than a mob. Instead of being able to relax, each individual remains in a state of nervousness about whether their priority in the line is being preserved. As already noted, agitated waits seem longer than relaxed waits. It is for this reason that many service facilities have a system of taking a number, whereby each customer is issued a number and served in strict numerical order. In some facilities, the number currently being served is prominently displayed so that customers can estimate the expected waiting times.
7) The More Valuable the Service, the Longer the Customer Will Wait
That perceived value affects tolerance or waits can be demonstrated by our common experience in restaurants-we will accept a much longer waiting time at a haute cuisine facility than at a “greasy spoon.” In universities, there is an old rule of thumb that if the teacher is delayed, “You wait ten minutes for an assistant professor, fifteen minutes for an associate professor, and twenty minutes for a full professor.” This illustrates well the principle that tolerance for waits depends upon perceived value of service-perhaps with the emphasis on the perception.
8) Solo Waits Feel Longer than Group Waits
One of the remarkable syndromes to observe in waiting lines is to see individuals sitting or standing next to each other without talking or otherwise interacting until an announcement of a delay is made. Then the individuals suddenly turn to each other to express their exasperation, wonder collectively what is happening, and console each other. What this illustrates is that there is some form of comfort in group waiting rather than waiting alone.
So, those were some of the principles in my original article. (Here’s the link again to the full piece, The Psychology of Waiting Lines.)
Now comes your challenge to help this discussion along: what “cool” approaches have you seen businesses use to apply these or other principles and make us, the customers, tolerate waits or even turn the wait to the business’ advantage?
Who’s doing clever things with managing waiting lines (or queues, as my English family calls them)?